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Do You Think White People Should Cook Mexican Food?

Should White People Cook Mexican Food? Thoughts On the Kooks Burritos Sage.

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The saga of Kooks Burritos, as far as I can tell, begins with owners Liz Connelly and Kali Wilgus taking a road trip to Mexico where they ate lobster burritos on the beach and fell in love with the stretchy, handmade flour tortillas used to wrap them up. “They wouldn’t tell us too much about technique, but we were peeking into the windows of every kitchen, totally fascinated by how easy they made it look. ..”

Connelly and Wilgus returned to Portland with the aim of making tortillas as good as the ones they had eaten in Baja California.

Not long after the story about their new pop-up burrito cart went live, the comments section exploded with charges of cultural appropriation. More than 1,500 comments have been posted on the Willamette site since then, and the story has gone viral in food circles around the world.

Many of those who accuse Kooks Burritos of cultural theft point to one quote in particular — “We were peeking into the windows of every kitchen” — as evidence that the Kooks team was sneaky and cavalier in gaining access to a recipe that did not belong to them.

Amid the growing controversy, Kooks Burritos quietly closed shop, and the Willamette has since reported that Connelly and Wilgus have received death threats.

The basic outlines of this story are not new. White folks entering another culture, becoming enamored of it, and adopting it for their own pleasure, use, or profit (or some combination of all three), remains a popular narrative in food and travel storytelling.

It seems curious, though, that Kooks, in particular, was so forcefully accused of cultural appropriation when there are plenty more high-profile chefs and businesses “guilty” of the same thing.

Almost everyone I’ve polled on this matter, mostly Mexican relatives (including my mother, who regularly makes her own ambrosial flour tortillas from scratch) and Mexican-American friends, do not see what all the fuss is about. It should be obvious, I hope, that one Mexican person’s opinion is not a stand-in for every other Mexican person on the planet.

Other people — maybe some of the women in Baja California who rely on tortilla-making for their livelihood — might not feel the same way. There is something genuinely exhausting and confusing about seeing parts of your culture embraced and fetishized — tacos, tequila, handmade flour tortillas, to name a few — while other parts of it are scorned or rejected.

There is something genuinely exhausting and confusing about seeing parts of your culture embraced and fetishized — tacos, tequila, handmade flour tortillas, to name a few — while other parts of it are scorned or rejected.


I grew up with a Spanish-speaking mother, and the people who hissed at us to “speak English because we’re in America” at the grocery store were usually the same people with a stack of tortillas in their shopping carts.

The ability to compartmentalize culture into tiny, highly consumable bits and pieces — enjoying only what we like about someone’s culture while choosing not to engage with the rest of it — is not a power we all enjoy.

For some, the owners of Kooks Burritos come off as guileless young entrepreneurs who make the tortilla-making sound a little too much like a grand and fun money-making experiment.

For some Mexican women, making tortillas is simply work and drudgery; a necessity. If these two are guilty of anything, it seems more likely that it was of having somewhat bad manners (peeking through windows is considered rude in most parts of the world), and perhaps giving a slightly clumsy interview.

Food is tied up in culture and, it bears repeating the obvious, which is that food culture is radically impure and dynamic, and we would not have some of the most beloved and quintessentially American dishes if not for different cultures brushing up against one and other in weird and wonderful ways.

In the past year, I’ve been asked more than once whether I think white people should be allowed to make Mexican food.

The question confounds me because it seems clear to me that anyone can make whatever they damn well, please. If I had a dollar for every lecture I’ve endured on what constitutes true and “authentic” al pastor or carne asada, I would have enough to open many, many burrito carts.

It seems reasonable to wonder if this obsession with authenticity is what partly inspired the Kooks owners to talk about how and where they learned to make their tortillas in the first place.

In these times, we are quicker than ever to turn people into symbols of what’s wrong with the world, instead of accepting them for what they probably are: budding entrepreneurs with a serious tortilla obsession.

Amid all the name-calling and accusations, nobody stopped to talk about whether the Kooks burritos were any good — whether they tasted as great as they sounded. I mean, they sounded like pretty good tortillas.

Read the whole story: Should White People Cook Mexican Food? Thoughts On the Kooks Burritos Sage | Phoenix New Times